From the Archives: My Interview With Former Replacements Guitarist Slim Dunlap
Earlier today, I had the pleasure of interviewing Skyway publisher (and former Sorry About Dresden bassist) Matthew Tomich for a future episode of The Ledge. Skyway was an internet "magazine" in the 90's that compiled news and personal stories about the Replacements and their subsequent solo careers.
While writing for Tempest during that time, I had the pleasure of talking to former Replacements guitarist Slim Dunlap to publicize an appearance at the Pomp Room. I sent off a copy to Matt for inclusion in Skyway, which years later led to a few paragraphs being included in Jim Walsh's All Over But the Shouting biography of the band. Yet I no longer had a copy of this interview...until today. After my conversation with Tomich, I spent a bit of time digging around through old issues until I found this(partial) transcription of the interview:
Tempest: Although you've been around for a long time, most people know you only as 'former Replacement'. Tell me about your pre-'mats days. Slim Dunlap: I've done this for over 20 years. I've been in 8 billion bands, mostly in bands that I never thought would get anywhere. I'm largely known prior to joing the Replacements for my work with this local singer by the name of Curtiss A, and I was in a million combinations with him. People ask me a million times for the names of the bands I was in, and I've forgotten them all. (Laughs) Best not remembered.
I'm not a particular style. I'm a lot of different styles. I've taken on a lot of styles only to realize, shit I can't play that. The legend about me in Minneapolis is that people would see me playing bluegrass one night and in a big hard rock thing the next. Nobody around here could ever figure out exactly what I am. It's fun to change it up because I don't want to turn it into a job. A lot of guys think only in terms of career after a while. I definitely don't want a career. I've pulled the plug on myself many times. T: What was your role during your stint in the Replacements? Do you think you added some stability to the band? SD: Oh, I keep on getting credit for it but I think that's the last thing that band needed. I can probably say I'm the consummate sideman. I've spent 20 years being a sideman. Going into a band, a sideman is all about being there, and I tried to do that in the Replacements. It wasn't my job to come in there and say 'here's what you're doing wrong' because at the time I loved that band.
Coming into the band, settling down and sobering up and growing up and shit like that kind of chronologically happened because they were kind of reaching that point.
I really think that my role in the Replacements was to not have a role. To not change them in any way, shape or form. I get the credit for a number of things, but for the most part they're undeserved.
You're in a position where I'm a songwriter; I know what being a songwriter's all about. There are many times when a band is a songwriter with a bunch of other people around him trying to guide his songs. I don't think that's necessary. I tried to let Paul know that he could do anything he wanted to and I'd do anything I could to help the song out. I think that's why he and I are still friends.
That's how it can get ugly. There are so many bands that break up that started up as the best of friends and end up hating each other. I never take bands all that seriously. T: I'll bet you have a million stories. SD: Anyone who has been on the road has stories. That's why I love what I do. I'm a people kind of person. I love people and as a songwriter that's where I get most of my material. T: The song on your solo album about opening acts, "The Ballad of the Opening Band" - is that about being an opener or from years of watching warmup bands? SD: A combination of the two. I love show business. A lot of my songs are about being a musician and they don't really mean much to people who aren't musicians. I believe you should write your life, and it's been my life. Not in a bitter sort of way. They're not sad songs. T: With all the critical acclaim the Replacements received, why do you think they never hit it big? SD: I get the weirdest looks from people when I tell them, but in a weird way I'm kind of glad. When you reach the point where the band sells many millions of copies of a single record, it's usually the most wide open and successful type record. The Replacements were never a wide open band.
The record company tried their damndest bit I really think the Replacements were different from other bands in that they weren't writing songs specifically to be hits. They were writing songs that said something to the right person, the words meant a lot to this person in particular. You and me are still talking about the band because there will always be another group of kids becoming 17, 18 years old and the Replacements music will always mean something to that age group.
I don't think every band should be a huge Def Leppard, Bon Jovi kind of thing. If the Replacements had made that leap, I don't think we'd be discussing them in the same way we are now. There'd be a big success, a peak, and a burnout period, and it'd be done. The whole time before I joined and then afterwards, I never saw this as a possibility for the band. In a weird way that music is too literate, too intelligent to make it big. You never know, though, because occasionally good stuff does make it.A lot of it also is that the times were different. If the Replacements where they were in 1986 were right now, it'd be a completely different story.
At the time of the Replacements, the real competition for heading toward the mainstream was R.E.M. At one time both bands were in similar positions, and were poised to make that leap. R.E.M. made that leap, and the Replacements didn't. Who knows why that is, but I think a lot of it is that R.E.M. was more willing to adapt to the marketplace. They'd write the songs, record them, and then hand them to the record company and say do what you want with them. I think bands that do walk that line pay a price. T: Certainly there's a bit of a backlash against them also. SD: In a weird way there is. A lot of the people who loved the Replacements at the beginning stuck with them until the end, and there were some that thought they lost something at some point. You can't win with everybody.
I think to a lot of the younger musicians, the Replacements are a shining example of all you end up with in the end is your dignity. The time you are in the limelight is very important because you live with it the rest of your life. All of the Replacments are proud of what they did and they have nothing to look back on in a bad way. I know some musicians that had a huge hit and when it comes on the radio and you're sitting there next to them you can just feel them bristle. That never happened to the Replacements.
I think the saga of the Replacements is not over yet. I think in a weird way the band going under may have been the best thing for each person involved. T: I must admit I'm a surprised at the quality of the solo projects. Who thought that Chris Mars couple put out two pretty good albums, and Tommy's debut (Bash and Pop) was fantastic. SD: It was hard for Tommy and Chris because they were writers. I remember being interviewed with them and the interviewer asked if sometimes we felt we were just the backup band for Westerberg. Tommy and Chris just looked at each other, and I said, 'actually, yes.' They got really upset, they were offended at that perception.
That's a difficult thing for a person like Paul, thinking we'll continue the band and these guys make a comfortable living. But in the end, they had music to get out. And that was kind of the impetus for folding. Everyone could go in their musical direction.
Paul, to his credit, knew he'd be alright, and also thought if they get there music out there, maybe they'll do okay. Tommy and especially Chris definitely understand a lot more about this business then they did a couple of years ago.
Chris and Tommy were both songwriters the whole time. That was an important part of the band, the competition factor. That's an important part of a lot of bands. A lot of people don't understand that the competitiveness is healthy.
Paul guided his songs in a way that they would like them, and that was part of their contribution. I don't think Paul would have done things the way he did without those guys.
You know, there are a lot of bands who make it to the point that the Replacements did, where they start to make a living. They think it's not a bad way to make a little money. 'This is not a bad way to go. We'll do whatever we need to do to continue this little gravy train we got going here.' Very often, this thinking helps destroy what you've done. That was never a goal of the Replacements, to become an institution like the Rolling Stones. We were always a little on the edge. T: My understanding is that the couple of times the 'mats did flirt with success was disastrous, like the Tom Petty tour. SD: It wasn't an utter failure. I think part of that is that no matter what part of show business you are, you dream of the next round. To be at the amphitheater status, I think what killed it for us was realizing that this is where we were headed. I think part of what happened to the Replacements is that concerts changed in the last 10 years. They've gotten more predictable. In the early days of the Replacements anything could happen when we walked onto the stage. The night could be a total disaster or it could be a great night. The further you get, the more protected you are and for us it just wasn't fun to play for 15,000 people. They're so far away.
Plus, it was the Tom Petty audience that had a lot to do with it. That was not our crowd. When Paul Westerberg stands behind that microphone, there's danger. And when Tom Petty stands behind the mike, you're safe. Paul is one of the greatest 'anger channellers' in the business, but in an artful way. That's not what Tom Petty does.
I really don't think it mattered who the band was we opened for. It was a matter of reaching that point in your life where you saw your future. T: I've heard a rumor that Tommy Stinson is being kept under contract to Warners just in case of a reunion. SD: Warner Brothers doesn't let anybody go if they can help it. They have so many artists who really aren't doing anything. A smaller label can't afford to carry someone. They had Tommy under contract; they didn't have anybody else. I think partly for them it's a salvage kind of effort. They put all of this into them and need something to show for it.
There's an up and down nature to all careers. Record companies aren't dumb. Someone might be really down right now, but if they let them go they might go on and do something huge for someone else. They don't like that to happen. It's just like football and baseball owners. If they can keep you, they will. They're not going to take a chance.
I think in the case of Tommy, they're behind him. I think they hear people talk about the Replacements. They never really understood them, but they hear the respect that keeps the interest in their music. T: Are you surprised at how devoted Replacements fans are? SD: No, because I played with them. I see people all the time that are die hard Replacements fans. Everywhere I play they come see me. The band was together for over 12 years and the people that come up to me are not people that were 22, 23 years old a decade ago. They're people much younger than that that have obviously picked up on it later. That's the power of the music! It continues to draw people. There's a very wonderful intelligence to those songs, and people respond to that. I think some of those songs I'm afraid are classics.
Paul was on tour last year, and when he played here he was talking to me about it, he didn't really want to play old Replacements songs. But whenever he'd go into one, there'd be this incredible, thundering applause from the audience. We all knew they were good songs at the time, but a lot of people don't realize some songs live longer than others. Some of Paul's aren't going anywhere; he's stuck with them. (Laughs)
I think in a weird way, a band like the Replacements going under the way they did makes the music seem more alive. If the band was still alive, this same phenomenon would still occur but not to the same degree. The band left at a time before it became ugly. I think some bands hang around way too long, not realizing that the music doesn't have to die just because the band dies. Some music sounds really, really good and a week later, it's 'oh, I don't know about that.' I think the fact that a lot of Replacements records, when they came out they got such mixed reviews, that's a real good indicator that something's happening. I've had a lot of people come up to me and say that they thought such and such record was a piece of shit when it came out, but now itÕs their favorite. T: Exile on Main Street is a perfect example. SD: That's a good example. I remember hearing nothing but shit about that when it came out. Right now, to me that's the zenith of the Rolling Stones. T: One thing that shows the sustained interest in the Replacements is the various computer billboards. Are you aware of what's going on there? SD: I've got a buddy that has that and he was showing me that one night. I really think that's a huge factor in the next few years. That's the way a lot of people are discovering new music.
The huge bootlegging network that built up when the band was alive tortured the band, because you're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars spent that they couldn't recoup. When we saw some of the sales figures of some of our records and it made us sick when you add up all the unlicensed copies out there. A lot of the really dedicated music fans are broke people. I think a lot of bands are bothered by that, but I think it's a tribute in a weird way. The bands that are getting attention on computer lines are a huge test because people donÕt have to contribute.
One band will wonder 'why don't people bootleg us.' You just want to go 'because you don't need to.' I really think in a lot of ways the Replacements weren't a band that didn't play the band game and you kind of took your chances if you liked their music. (Laughs) All the people that tried to shake Paul's hand and he'd snub them and shit, that's their memory of the band. I think as time fades, people tend to forget about those things. It was a hard band to love in it's day. You had to really be dedicated. (Laughs) It was a hard band to be in!! T: The reviews of your first solo album brought up Keith Richards a lot. Is he a huge influence? SD: I've answered this question so many times. I kind of go into autopilot when I answer this. Anytime you talk about influences it's a combination of yes, you're influenced by this person but it's also by being influenced by similar musicians. I'm a little bit younger than Keith; he's got a few decades on me. (Chuckles)
But I've met him several times, and we are similar musicians. The role of the rhythmn guitar is a very influential thing in the music I like and the music he likes. The Rolling Stones are, to me at least, Keith Richards. That guitar signature, that's kind of rapidly becoming the mark of 60's rock and roll. The guitar isn't the dominant instrument that it once was. It doesn't serve the same purpose anymore. It has a different role in modern music, and that's where I've kind of consciously drawn the line. I try to as much as I can stick to rhythmn guitar based stuff. So there will always be a connection, but that's a connection I'm proud of.
I think the strongest influence on Keith was Muddy Waters. Muddy's a huge influence on me. I think he's one of the greats of our century. I listened to Robert Johnson about the same time Keith did, and there's some different grooves that lead to what I do.
But to me, I play this thing called rock and roll, and rock and roll to someone 22, 23 is a very different thing then it is to someone 20 years older. I harken back to a different thing, especially on that first record. Maybe not as much on the one I'm working on now. I got kind of sick of that 'hey it sounds like Keith' thing. There's very little Keith on this new one, as a matter of fact.
It's a part of me live, and always will be because he's a huge influence. I think Keith Richards, not as a singer/songwriter but as a musician. The wonderful thing about Keith is his use of space and the use of silence. Short, chopped off riffs always perk my ear up more than a guy that has a blazing, smoking sound that he shoves right in your face.
John Lennon, though, is who I ultimately idolize. As a songwriter, bar none. As a singer, bar none. As a rhythmn guitar player, there's never been anyone like John. John played with three rather average musicians, and he had to make the rhythm guitar do it all. He had to cover for a weak drummer and a lame guitar player. To me, a song starts with the rhythm guitar. A little riff that kind of doubles up rhythm in your ear. I'm definitely a child of the 60's. It's a huge part of what I do so I'll always live with that connection. But I wear that proudly. T: Tell me about your new album then. Is it about to come out? SD: It was supposed to come out soon but I'm way late on it. I'm working on it. I do a lot of recording at home. A lot of my friends thought with a recording studio at home, I ought to crank one out in three days. (Laughs) It's not that easy.
A big part of what happens is when you do a lot of home recording you don't realize that it's difficult to engineer. I planned on having it done by October 15 but I'm nowhere near that. I'll have it done by the end of November. I wish it could come out by Christmas but you're not supposed to put out records in winter. It'll probably come out in March. T: Do you have a title for it yet? SD: I'm not going to give it out. It's a good little play on words. I don't like to give the title way before the record comes out, because then you look so stupid when it's got a different one. T: How does this record sound compared to the first one? SD: My band seems to feel it's similar. It's generally the same basic forms. It's very similar in feel but it has a different approach to it. I recorded it a little bit rougher. The other one was starting to get a little too polished. I had to go on the road so I finished it in a couple of nights. Thank God I did, otherwise that record would have been too slick.
This one I'm doing myself, and I'm keeping the edge there. I do a lot of it spontaneously. What I've learned in my years of playing is that if you're thinking about what you're doing there's something wrong. It's been a fun record to do, there's a certain air to it. A lot of records that were ground out sound like it. A lot of people make a record like a movie. I've just never been able to do that. I have more fun this way.
I'm not against people taking a lot of time in the studio. A lot of bands, though, get way too careful about their music. I think a good song is a good song, whether it's recorded poorly or really well. A lot of bands are so worried about the outside veneer of something and not so worried about what's inside, which you can't fake or hide. You hear that a lot. You hear a song that sounds really good and you get three lines into the lyrics and you relaize this fucker has absolutely nothing to say. He's got zero to say. It's just all dressed up. It's window dressing.
I try to avoid that as much as possible. Whenever I get something and it starts to sound good to my ears, I want to make sure that lyrically it's there. We're seeing a change now. To get top technology you have to spend a quarter of a million dollars. We're seeing a sense that many people don't want that anymore; they don't want an album that took two years and 17 hundred people to make. They'd rather buy something that was made in a couple of days by one guy.
What we're talking about here is music made by committee. These bands make tapes as they're going along, and they're guided by the record company. 'Make it a little bit more like this song. Ever heard Sting turn in anything like this?' We're getting music that has less personality in it. To me putting out a record and watching it go right down the tubes with no one giving a fuck about it is actually not that bad of a sign. To me, people liking something or hating it is the same thing. It's a reaction. So many bands read their reviews and think it's great when there's 12 or so reviews that are all positive.
I'd much rather have some that say we're shit; old-timey bullshit! I'm trying to make music that is extreme in a weird sort of way. I don't want everyone to like me. I'm not trying to make music that everyone likes. It's boring! To do so is so common denominator that it could have no personality whatsoever. And I'm all about personality. I'm a live performer. I sell my songs live much better than on record. You don't see that much anymore. Most bands just concentrate on the records. They have records that sound really good but when they go out there live they're OK.
I like to hear records by bands that are kind of poorly produced and then when you see them live they kick your butt! A lot of bands don't realize that when you sing a song constantly live, that time you recorded it was just one time. The best time you do that song might be in front of six people in Bullhunk, OK. I don't think that snapshot of the song has to be the best you ever do. You're never going to be able to predict the best time you do it. Chances are that it's not going to happen in the studio. It's going to happen when some guy just threw a beer bottle and it just missed your head.
I'll never reach that level where I'm successful enough at recording that that's all I will do. The only reason I make records is so I can play live. If a record is marginally successful I'm happy. All I want to do is play live. T: That's what I've like about Dylan the last few years. He doesn't do the same song the same way every time you see him. SD: I've gone to many Dylan shows where my friends go 'that's 'Mr. Tambourine Man?'' Then you go see somebody that had a huge hit in 1963 and they do it exactly the same as they did it then. That isn't what art's about. You change as a person so you're perspective on the song changes.
I think Bob has been disinterested for a good long time. I think the fact that Bob is still a powerful force in music is to his credit. I've been a Dylan fan since day one. I get a lot of people that look down on him. 'You still like Bob Dylan?' He goes up and down with the currents. That's what it's all about. A real musician knows there's going to be good times, and a whole lot of bad times. It's those bad times that give you the material for the good times.
There's so many band that you see them one night and they're good, and then you go see them a couple of nights later and it's the same thing. That's not a band! A band is something that reacts to the moment. If it's a crummy night you learn more about the band. These days there's so many tricks to cover for a bad night. A bad night is what's being a musician's all about. Show business doesn't always work. It's a different audience every night and you're same act may go like fucking dynamite tonight but the same act will bomb tomorrow. That doesn't mean change your act, or design it so it doesn't happen again. Too many people worry about what you're doing wrong, but usually you're not doing anything! (Laughs)
That's the fun of playing live. That's why I moved the recording out of the studio and tried to incorporate it more into what I do. I enjoy the process. A lot of people want to be musicians for what it can bring them. To me, you have to enjoy being a musician. That's what it's all about. T: There's the classic Pete Townshend line about joining a band to get girls. SD: There's some truth to that in a lot of cases, but in the long haul it won't really keep you moving. Being a musician involves very brief moments of attention and applause and interspersed between them are long moments where there's nobody around. A lot of people are musicians when there's an audience there, but to really be a musician you must be able to just hack it out. A lot of people ask me about writing songs and I tell them the only way to write a hit is to be writing all the time. One day you might be lucky. You can't set out to write a hit. You need to just start writing songs and hope one day you get it. It's a craft, an art. You have to practice it every fucking day. A lot of bands don't understand that. They hear the stories about a hit where the guy goes 'the fucker just wrote itself. I just got a pen in my hand and bang! It came out.' It just doesn't work that way. It's a long unending process and you have to enjoy it. If it's painful and excruciating, you're in the wrong business.
There's a lot of things in the music business that many musicians don't understand because they're not fun. That's part of it. To me, you know when you're in the company of a musician. It's a special person that really doesn't get excited about anything. He's been shot down so many times that nothing fazes them.
You can walk up to a young band if you're a record company and they'll do anything the company wants them to do. You walk up to a musician and he'll look at the contract and just go 'yeah.' That's what keeps me at this. I'm way too old to be playing rock and roll but I feel rock and roll has nothing to do with age. The day it stops being fun is the day I find something else to do because it's a horrible occupation, there's no doubt about it. There's no reward at the end of the road. There's so many musicians in my age group that are off the road and have nothing to show for it. In many cases they're bitter about that. I'm not bitter. I've enjoyed every performance I've ever given. I'd like to crack out a couple more! And I'm coming out to your town!!